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Posted at 8:00 PM ET, 01/12/2011

Can we measure school climate?

By Jay Mathews

Here in the Washington area, we measure our schools many ways. We know their average SAT scores, their percentage of students passing state reading and math tests, their sizes, their racial mixes, their graduation rates and, of course, their football teams’ win-loss records.

But despite that easily accessible flood of numbers, we have no useful gauge of how it feels to be a student at, say, Oakton High School in Fairfax County, compared to Springbrook High School in Montgomery County or Cardozo High School in the District.

Are those schools’ students similarly comfortable? Do they worry in the same way about safety? Are they equally confident that their teachers and administrators have the stresses of school life in hand?

We don’t know.

I have been wondering about our failure to measure some of the most important school issues for our children since my newspaper recently published misleading safety indicators put out by D.C. public schools. A chart said Spingarn High School had only six security incidents in four months of 2009, way below the city average of 31, even though Spingarn teachers were reporting so much disruption at that time that the principal was fired because of it.

That’s typical, school security experts tell me. Administrators often cover up assaults and thefts so they won’t look bad. Security guards can be persuaded not to file reports. When some teachers see how much paperwork a complaint requires, they keep mum.

But we spend much time and money producing regular, detailed assessments of academic progress. Can’t we do that in measuring school climate?

Dick Reed, a parent and PTA officer in Fairfax, is also a Navy budget analyst. He measures how well systems work and has considered how to assess school atmosphere. He sees holes in the standard measures of school safety, such as absolute number of reported harmful incidents.

“I’d look at the rate of incidents per pupil,” he said. “And I’d separate those committed by outsiders from those committed by students, and in the classroom from those committed elsewhere on campus.”

Steve Peha, a North Carolina-based teacher and education consultant, recommends that schools measure not only assaults, threats and thefts but also a basic characteristic of learning, class participation. When he teaches, he makes participation part of the grade (often discouraged by school systems these days as unrelated to content mastery) and has students review their participation out loud in class. “Then I want a verbal commitment to improve,” he said.

“I can show, statistically, kids with higher degrees of participation make more progress in class and therefore reach higher levels of performance over time,” he said. Instead of gathering data on positive participation, he said, “all we do is track the negative participation of kids.” This, Peha said, sends “the message that aberrant behavior is more worthy of being tracked than the norm” and motivates more bad acts.

Donna Wright, a former principal in East Tennessee, said she improved her school climate by creating a principal’s roundtable of two dozen students who advised her. “I made sure I had a nice representation of thugs, along with the nerds and invisible kids,” she said. They gave her valuable information, as did students she paid for confidential tips on weapons and drugs.

An experienced Northern Virginia school official warned against the common practice of using discipline figures to identify different school environments. “The amount of discipline reported does not necessarily equate to a safe climate,” said the official, who requested anonymity to speak freely. A school that reports few suspensions is not necessarily better than one that reports many, the official said.

The best way to assess what students encounter is regular surveys of teachers and students. But like all true school improvements, that requires school leaders strong enough to listen and react intelligently to bad news. Such people are in short supply. Even the ones we have are not getting the information they need.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | January 12, 2011; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Dick Reed, Donna Wright, Steve Peha, distortions in D.C. security report figures, measuring if students feel differently at different schools, more student and teacher surveys needed, school climate, such data could however mean bad news  
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Comments

Yes. It is possible to measure school climate. And Poughkeepsie Day School has done just that.

100% of our students feel safe in school: http://www.pdscompasspoint.com/we-asked-they-told-100-feel-safe-in-school

And look at their level of intellectual, social and emotional engagement as measured by the HSSSE (High School Survey of Student Engagement)

http://www.pdscompasspoint.com/tests-that-matter-measuring-the-pds-difference/

The climate for learning matters. Student engagement matters. Children learn and succeed where and when they are respected and engaged in the learning process. This means integrity, responsibility and mutual respect.

Posted by: JosieHolford | January 12, 2011 8:29 PM | Report abuse

It no only requires strong school leaders it requires time. Jay, you write often about how much time is wasted in schools but now you are ready to take academic time for regular surveys of students. I think that's actually a good idea, but it seems like you are falling into the same trap as many who talk about improving schools. You keep adding and adding and adding without any way to make it all happen.

Right now all our schools can focus on is standardized tests. It dominates everything. This is especially true of our low-preforming schools, which are often the ones with safety issues.

Posted by: Jenny04 | January 12, 2011 9:55 PM | Report abuse

Arlington County Public Schools do this (annually, I believe), surveying parents, students and teachers about schools, and using the data to drive school-based improvement plans.
A quick survey of the APS website led to this link, with information from the 2007 survey, which was conducted independently (not by the school system). You can read the summary report on this PDF, and see exactly what the survey instruments and methodologies were as well as a school-by-school breakdown of results: http://www.apsva.us/154010829233400/lib/154010829233400/Comm Satis Survey 07 FINAL - WEB.pdf

(It is a 248-page document)

Posted by: hippiehigh | January 12, 2011 10:04 PM | Report abuse

Paying students for information?

I wonder if they are paying for information about the teachers?

Posted by: Hrod1 | January 12, 2011 11:20 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Jenny04 above about wasting school time on all the incessant and unnecessary testing.

A good survey of student engagement would be excellent replacement for most of the other tests and their endless data streams that serve only to degrade education further.

If the survey results are used for a community wide focus on improving student engagement across the three domains - cognitive/ academic, social/ behavioral and emotional - the rest will follow. And when results begin to show high levels of student engagement then administer every other year. More time saved for learning.

Posted by: JosieHolford | January 13, 2011 6:54 AM | Report abuse

Train a REPRESENTATIVE sample of students. Give them special cell phones, and send signals at randomn times. When the student rceives the signal, they describe what they are actuall seeing and hearing at that moment. Compile all of those snapshops, LOOK AT THE RESULTS HONESTLY, and use for discussion and planning.

Also, adopt Steve Peha's and the two administrators suggestions.

Across the school grounds, as well as in the classroom, adults can maintain control only if we use our heads, learn from our experience, and think ahead. document patterns where things go right and wrong, converse with students to help plan your work, and the work your plan.

Besides, teachers won't listen to mandates for data-driven analysis of instruction until schools do their job in addressing disorder. Build trust through data-informed efforts to improve behavior, and you'll win over teachers as well as students.

Posted by: johnt4853 | January 13, 2011 8:26 AM | Report abuse

The issue being surveys are emotional as opposed to testing which it factual, the survey is a snapshot. It would largely depend on recent events, more recent emotions, and recent engagement.

A survey of the school where a child was hurt would be cause for concern and a survey would possibly show apprehension, whereas 30-60 days later the survey may be totally changed with the same respondents. We could just as easily formulate a picture of a test the same way, but then we need a decision on the cause.

What surveys can produce is interest in possible causes and avoid test grade problems. The test simply cannot find the cause of a grade.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 13, 2011 8:27 AM | Report abuse

The issue is that schools are punished for faithfully reporting statistics. A high suspension rate signals a poor performing school. In an attempt to mask that, students are either not suspended, or a suspension is called something else.

As a by-product, teachers do not feel supported and will not support any type of measure of their effectiveness as a teacher in a chaotic environment. If I felt that administration had a handle on student conduct, the special education department had decent knowledge of every student with an IEP, and all teachers discipline reports were taken seriously, I could put more faith in measures of my effectiveness as a teacher.

Posted by: HistTeach1 | January 13, 2011 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Teachers don't always want to report in writing because the administration will suggest that if the teacher had proper management then the event wouldn't have happened.

Administrators don't want to report student problems because those statistics are published and can be used against the school.

I mean that the school can be seen as racist if the troublemakers belong to one ethnic group, or the school can be seen as "failing" or housing a lot of troublemakers.

This leaves teachers in a bind if they happen to be in a school that is trying to hide the truth. The teacher is responsible for the safety of all the students. However, if their are no consequences for the student, the teacher is in trouble.

That is why the easiest way for a principal to get a teacher labeled "ineffective" is to assign a high number of troublemakers to the teacher's class without any support staff. Then they will point across the hall and say, "If Mrs. X can do it, why can't you? We all have the same kids."

This situation is an unforeseen result of publishing statistics about student behavior. Schools try to cover up big incidents, or report them as lesser events and the kids figure it out and everything gets worse.

Obviously, it is not easy to teach or learn in these kinds of schools. That is why people read the statistics on violence, suspensions in a particular school before buying a home or moving to an apartment. Thus, the cycle continues.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 13, 2011 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Can you measure climate?
In some ways you can by interviewing students, parents and teachers. But I would not base any evaluation on statistics of incidents.
There are some school staffs that are told to downgrade the seriousness of incidents "so that the students aren't harmed". The idea is that there is no reason to overreact.
It is absurdly dishonest, but so is the idea that in a school of 700 students you will never have any incidents. The idea that every child is ready to learn everyday is false. There is really no "time out" space in most schools for students who can't function emotionally.
The emphasis is on keeping them in class so that they don't miss out on learning.

The majority of schools don't operate in this dysfunctional manner. But some do.

I would suggest that looking at staff and teacher turnover rates would be a good indicator of a questionable school climate.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 13, 2011 10:48 AM | Report abuse

I personally think that teaching to a test has less to do with school climate. It is just something else to teach. You can teach to a test in an interesting way. You can make up games. They aren't going to learn much other than how to take a test, but I'm not sure that is what effects school climate.

School climate has more to do with administrators blaming teachers for student misbehavior. Also teachers should have management systems set up so that the classroom runs smoothly. But if students are defiant, then there not much a teacher can do other than talk to the student, call the parents, try a contract, keep them in for lunch. If a student is defiant, it is not because they are being tested too much, in my experience.

I am not in favor of too much standardized testing, especially not if it is not related to the curriculum. I just don't see that particular factor effecting school climate as much as strong staff, strong leadership and consistent teaching. The obvious other factor is the student's homelife and the role of the parent. But, here too, it comes down to what is done with a defiant or violent student. Because most kids, in most schools have parents who care or are able to care about themselves enough to do well in a halfway normal environment. If the principals don't back the teachers and the teachers are not consistent and the troublemakers are allowed to continue, that is where the problems are.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 13, 2011 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Look at teacher turnover rates and overall school performance for a good indicator of climate.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 13, 2011 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Talking to students is part of the picture. I like the principal's idea of the group of all types of kids and their take on things.
Most often the kids know about who uses drugs, who is in a gang, who has family problems before anyone else does. I am not sure all this will come out in a large group setting, however and some of it may or may not have an effect on the school climate.

Having the kids meet for this purpose would effect the school climate positively, I would think, because it shows you think the issue is important and also it shows that you care what the kids think. It is also going to keep you tuned in to your school and not just to the teacher pets and principal pets.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 13, 2011 11:11 AM | Report abuse

When I saw the headline in the print edition about how students *feel* I thought you were going to address the rash of suicides among area students. Just last week, another Westfield student committed suicide. When are we going to pay attention?

Posted by: awrosenthl | January 13, 2011 12:06 PM | Report abuse

When I saw your headline asking how students *feel* I thought you were going to address the rash of suicides in the area, including another last week from Westfield High School. When are we going to pay attention?

Posted by: awrosenthl | January 13, 2011 12:10 PM | Report abuse

The variety and depth of these posts impresses me. I plan to use some of them when I next return to this topic. I welcome more. If anyone wants me to use his or her real name, email me at mathewsj@washpost.com

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 13, 2011 2:24 PM | Report abuse

The people who best measure school climate are parents and students. Students will tell you if the school is safe if they show up every day; students tend to be quite harsh about their classmates who ruin the classroom environment. Urban schools tend to bury their heads in the sand about this feedback because they cannot manage the magnitude of the problem.
Parents in urban schools judge a school's climate with their feet: if it's unsafe, and the adults aren't committed to their child, they choose other options if available. Parents don't spend time trying to 'fix' a school because they only get one shot at raising their children; why spend time trying to 'fix' an inhospitable, unsafe school while your child suffers there? Those who argue that 'charter schools perform no better than regular public schools' never confront this harsh reality of many urban schools, and why parents when given the chance choose something else.

Posted by: pdexiii | January 13, 2011 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Can we measure school climate? No and that is because we have too many people manipulating the temperature controls. Such as in DCPS, you can have a school out of control by all industry standards and manipulators will have you believe it is candidate for the blue-ribbon. Then you have the school that has one incident that is not even in the school but in the neighborhood and the school system wants a dead-man walking sentencing. I have already said this...but you have an instructional superintendent housed in a high-school and their ratings for serious incidents ranks in the top 3 of the 16 high schools. So, if you can't use that as an emphatic no, that we can't measure the school climate then I don't know what else could be prudent. Instead of can we measure, it should ask about can we recognize it?

Posted by: PowerandPride | January 13, 2011 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Surveys are good and do take some time, but mostly it is going to be time to make up the survey and total the results. It will be about 15 minutes of class time.

I think a couple good, trained, observers in the cafeteria and hallways (who know the kids' language) would be able to tell in a few days what is going on in a given school.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 13, 2011 5:36 PM | Report abuse

I don't think it is a mystery to anyone. The only one making a school with a bad climate out to be one with a good climate is going to be your administrators and their favorite teachers.
Survey the kids, the teachers and the security personnel and promise not to divulge names.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 13, 2011 5:39 PM | Report abuse

johnt4853 gave it to you straight. A representative sameple of trained informants (as anthropologists call them) providing data at low cost, not as canaries or stool pigeons. Are journalists, editors and the public ready to accept a sound sample with a high response rate over a 20% response rate among a large population? To judge from the crap Mo Co collects and reports annually in their stakeholder surveys, I'd say no. You have yourself challenged studies based on sample n, that being unrelated to the representativeness of population N from which it is drawn

Posted by: incredulous | January 13, 2011 10:53 PM | Report abuse

I'm not so sure "school climate" is the correct title for the information sought. To me, school climate is all encompassing, not just how many security guards we have. School climate includes how the school responds to parental concerns. What kind of parental support does the school receive from the community? How does the school administration support teachers? How do teachers feel about the school administration? Are teachers treated professionally? Does the school and school district represent the best interest's of students...are decisions sound and does spending relate to increased learning. Is there a "team" environment with teachers working together? Do teachers have the necessary supplies?

I teach in a Title I elementary school...school safety, fortunately, is not a major concern, but too many meetings sucking up planning time and micro-managing are. The support I receive from the office when I send a referral is. The respect or lack of respect I receive from my Principal and from central administration is a major concern. The decisons that are made by the School Board and central administration that affect my instruction and my ability to properly do my job are a big part of school climate.

And yes, those questions and concerns can be quantified. But, in my school district, they have collected this data in a survey which included multiple choice questions (that were skewed to get the answers they wanted) and with open-ended questions. The answers to the open-ended questions were never publically released. Which brings up the real issue...if a climate survey is conducted, the administration needs to be prepared to deal with the problems.

Posted by: ilcn | January 14, 2011 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Your stories are usually well researched, but it seems that you didn't do your homework this time. an earlier poster talked about the surveys done in arlington county. Montgomery County conducts annual surveys of students, parents, and all school staff. These surveys include dozens of statements on which the participants to rate their agreement as well as an opportunity for comments. The results are shared, published, and taken very seriously. I imagine many districts have similar processes.

Posted by: captivated1 | January 18, 2011 3:49 PM | Report abuse

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